The True Story of a Pioneer Mother

Written by Marion Ahlstrom Hanson about her Grandmother published by Hale's Monthly Messenger, May, 1929.


A GREAT many things can happen in ninety-one years, at least Mrs. Christina Ahlstrom is of this opinion. This gracious old lady who makes her home in Waukon, Iowa part of the time has lived to see the time consumed in crossing the Atlantic cut down from a matter of months to a period reckoned in hours, the transformation of blazed trails into paved highways and any number of equally progressive changes of a nature to shame the pessimistic. Her story is so interesting and so typical of that of our early pioneer mothers that with her permission it is being related here. Christina Charlotte Ahlstrom (Mrs. Ahlstrom) born in Ostergotland, Sweden, in 1838; the daughter of Peter Johnson, a well-to-do farmer. Christina had eight brothers and sisters, two of whom died in the old country.

The year 1852 found the Johnson family on board a sailing vessel bound for America. The crossing of the Atlantic in those days was far from the convenient trip of today. The passengers carried their own food with them. The Johnson party's quarters were below the waterline and there their beds had to be placed crosswise of the course of the vessel, to enable the sleepers to stay in them, so rough was the crossing. Five births and five deaths were recorded in the ship's log of this voyage, including the death of a baby born to Christina's married sister. Sea sickness and home sickness were minor things with which this immigrant family had to contend.

After a voyage of five weeks duration the family landed at Boston. Chicago was the next destination of the immigrant band, so they took passage for that city in a stock-car, not a particularly pleasant conveyance or a very smooth road bed in those days. St. Louis being a starting paint for traffic on the upper Mississippi, the party proceeded. Part of the trip was made by river boat, the predecessor of the railroads. Cholera, which was rampant in those days attacked the immigrants on arrival in St. Louis and deprived Christina Johnson of her mother and one sister. This "promised land" of America must have looked very dismal to this immigrant girl of fourteen years, detained in the "pest house" on the banks of the Mississippi, while her mother lay dying in a hospital in the city apart from all members of her family. Christina being the oldest child, it fell her lot to act as a mother to her smaller brothers and sisters. One tragedy followed another and the same winter one of the brothers was picked up while sleeping by a drunken man and thrown in such a way as to give him a fatal spinal injury.

The spring of 1853, saw the pioneer band on board a steamer bound for Galena, Illinois. Here the party rested while Mr. Johnson went on ahead to Lansing, Iowa and made arrangements for securing a hundred and twenty acres of land in Centre township at $1.25 an acre. Shortly after Peter Johnson returned to Galena and had placed his party on the steamer en route for Lansing he suffered another loss. Namely, the loss of his hired man, whose expenses Mr. Johnson had paid ever since leaving Sweden, and a part of their luggage. The two disappearing at the same time it is natural to deduce that the two had a cause and effect relationship. Mrs. Ahlstrom says she had no regrets over the disappearance of the employee, as he was intemperate and crude to the children.

May 3rd, the party landed at Lansing. Here a team of oxen were purchased for sixty dollars and two cows for forty dollars. Thus equipped the party set out to their wilderness holdings ten miles distant. A dugout, or sod house, was built for the family abode, the next order of work was the clearing of three or four acres of land. This was all planted in corn, with the exception of a small garden plot in which Christina cultivated corn, cabbage and the like. Peter Johnson next enclosed his clearing with a rail fence. This took so much time that winter caught the family before a roof could be placed on the cabin, then in the process of construction. Wintering in the dug-out brought more pioneer hardships. The space was small and crowded and many a winter morning the family awoke to shake off a mantel of snow from their blankets.

The spring of 1854 saw a roof placed on the cabin. This was no small task, as all of the shingles had to be hand made with only the aid of crude tools. Aside from taking care of her brothers and sisters (the youngest less than two years old) cooking the meals. spinning yarn and making cloths for the family, Christina didn't have a great deal to do. The garden of course furnished some diversion. Again during the harvest season there was the grain to be cut with a cradle scythe and threshed by pounding on the frozen ground with a mall-like device. It is amusing to hear Grandmother Ahlstrom tell how she and her father, turned seamstresses by necessity, made the latter his first American shirt using the one he brought from Sweden as a pattern.

Pioneering was not without its pleasant diversions. Hunting was good and the first winter Peter Johnson killed two deer to vary the meat menu of salt pork. Prairie chickens were so thick that it was not unusual to kill two or three with one shot. Mrs. Ahlstrom remembers one occasion when her father shot a deer, but only wounded the animal. He immediately threw himself upon the animal and called for Christina to help him. This she did and with the aid of a butcher knife. Mr. Deer was soon venison. Flood seasons left many fish stranded on the banks of the creek near the cabin and these added further variation to the bill of fare.

A weekly diversion for our young pioneer was a walk to Lansing to purchase groceries, ammunition and like necessities. She could not ride as there were no horses and the oxen aside from being needed in the field were too slow. "Trading" was not easy either, as the store keeper was German and Christina knew but few words outside the Swedish language. However, by a process of head shaking and pointing the purchases were made. It was very aggravating to the store keeper to have his customer insist upon paying for each purchase individually, rather than waiting until through trading and then settling. Particular annoying, because the legal tender proffered consisted mostly of gold pieces requiring a great deal of change. Occasionally on these trips to town the young woman would encounter Indians. Fortunately they always proved to be friendly and on one occasion seven of them were sociable enough to invite themselves to stay with the family overnight. These early Americans asked to be permitted to sleep in the straw pile, but being hospitable, or perhaps fearing a fire, Christina insisted that they stay in the cabin. Never again though, and one gathers from Mrs. Ahlstroms objections that these red men were utter strangers to O-Do-ro-no.

No story of pioneering would be complete without a mention of encounters with rattle snakes. One day while walking along the side of the rail fence the subject of this narrative heard the warning rattle of a snake. She placed her baby brother, whom she was carrying upon her back, in a safe place and dispatched the reptile. Snakes quite often are found in pairs, and so it proved upon this occasion as when she went to enter the house another confronted her. This one received the same treatment as the other.

When Christina Johnson was eighteen years old, her father having married again, she became the bride of Magnus Ahlstrom. Mr. Ahlstrom worked on the farm adjoining the Johnson place. The young groom had worked hard and saved enough money to purchase forty acres of land from his employer. This purchased land had on it a very large tree that cost Magnus an extra ten dollars. This tree furnished the material from which a new cabin was made for the young couple. Mrs. Ahlstrom's wedding dress was real elaborate, requiring twelve yards of material and about an equal number of hoops. Eleven children were born to the Ahlstroms and few if any had the aid of a doctor in reaching this mundane sphere. Magnus Ahlstrom died a few years ago at the rare old age of ninetyfour. Six of the children are still living, including the youngest, Tony Ahlstrom of this city.

Remarkable as is the history of Mrs. Ahlstrom's pioneering days, equally remarkable is the mental and physical condition of this lady of ninety-one summers to day. A conversation she had with one of her sons a short time ago illustrates this alertness as well as any amount of description could do. It was about as follows. "Grandmother, how would you like an aeroplane ride?" "All right, I guess, it couldn't be any rougher than our passage across the Atlantic." All who know Grandmother Ahlstrom hope she may live to take many aeroplane rides should she really choose to do so.

This story I got from Carol Johnson. Her father's aunt Bessy was the daughter of Christina and Magnus Ahlstrom. Bessy lived to be 109 years old.

The author Marion Ahlstrom Hanson is now 88 and living in her home next to the Mississippi River in Harpers Ferry, Iowa. She would love to hear from readers and can be contacted by clicking here.

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